When you were growing up, the chances are your parents, at one time or another, preached: "People are known by the friends they keep." Probably falling on deaf ears sometime during our teen years, this "bon mot" so to speak, nonetheless lodged in the back of all our minds, and at one time or another has probably influenced, maybe ever so indirectly, the "friends we kept." If our friends help tell who we are, then they might well tell us a lot about who various artists were too. Take Paul Gauguin for example. Though it was a tortured one, knowing that he and Vincent van Gogh were like-minded enough to share a friendship tells us a lot about both men. The fact that their friendship ended so shortly and abruptly tells us even more. At times, too much alike, at times too different, van Gogh needing Gauguin far more than Gauguin needed van Gogh, both men were among the most neurotic and volatile artists to ever wield a brush.
The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut recently exhibited work involving yet another Gauguin friendship. Although we usually focus on the Gauguin/van Gogh relationship, shortly after they split up, Gauguin went off to the rustic fishing village of Le Pouldu on the northern Brittany coast of France. There he met Meyer de Haan, a slightly younger Dutch painter who had come all the way from Amsterdam to study with the notorious Frenchman. They lived and worked together for a little over a year (1889-90). De Haan paid the bills. Gauguin had acquired somewhat of a reputation as an artist by that time but was consistently broke. And, it must be said, they developed a kind of a friendship, though in de Haan's case, it should be added that, with a friend like Gauguin, he didn't need much in the way of enemies.
Both de Haan and Gauguin were deep thinkers. Both were into philosophies, dreams, fantasies, and Eastern mysticism. De Haan was a hunchbacked, scraggly redhead with a beard, pointed ears, and eyes that seemed to slant not unlike those of a cat. Gauguin was a dashing, not unattractive, though somewhat heavyset man replete with a thin, "French" moustache, a rather vain, former family man that fancied himself as having a "way" with women. For some time when they first met, the two men worked side by side, whether on still-lifes, landscapes, or seascapes, seemingly trying to out dazzle one another with ever more experimental palettes of bold, even jarring colours. What they came up with delved deeply into symbolism and early abstraction, stumbling way past the latent Impressionism they each sought to escape. Gauguin tended to paint general views, de Haan often zeroed in on smaller areas. Unlike the Gauguin/van Gogh relationship, both men seemed well-suited to one another.
Then they both met a pretty young innkeeper and both fell in lust with her. Gauguin made numerous advances and apparently was rebuffed. The girl and de Haan, at the same time, were having an affair. To be rejected for one so "common" as de Haan was a terrible blow to Gauguin's masculine French ego. And though the two continued working together and even living together for some time after that (Gauguin no doubt needed the money), one could hardly call what they had from that point on a friendship. Gauguin appears to have respected de Haan's intellect, but in the dozen or so paintings that came thereafter, de Haan is depicted by Gauguin, either symbolically or in fact, as a pervert. For example, The Loss of Virginity displays a female nude reclining on her back amidst a rolling field of grass, ablaze with neon colours of red, blue, and green. In one hand she holds a lily, with the other she pets a small fox which appears to be pawing her breast. The features of the fox, his eyes and pointed ears, are those of de Haan.
In another painting, de Haan is seen as a smirking devil gripping a writhing snake. Later, Gauguin painted his "friend" as hunched like some demon over a bowl of fruit. In another work, de Haan is seen leering lecherously at two young girls easily half his age. The Wadsworth show, "Gauguin's Nirvana: Painters at Le Pouldu 1889-90" was a collection of more than forty works by both artists. The title work from the show, Nirvana, depicts de Haan as the devil himself, clutching a golden snake in the shape of the letter "G," the first letter in Gauguin's name. Female nudes signifying life and death are stretched out seductively in the background while in the foreground, the word "Nirvana" apparently bears satiric reference to an evil de Haan having achieved a Buddhist oneness with the universe. It's a painting as filled with homage as ridicule. Even after they split apart and Gauguin was off to Tahiti, he got in a parting shot with a sumptuous painting of two voluptuous Tahitian nudes reclining on a beach. The title reads, "Are you Jealous?" .